Video: Dave Kellett “The Freeing of the Comics” lecture

This last fall at the triennial Festival of Cartoon Art at the OSU, Sheldon creator Dave Kellett gave an entertaining lecture on the future of comics from his vantage point as a professional webcomic cartoonist. His approach to the topic was to offer a response to Bill Watterson’s infamous “The Cheapening of Comics” speech given at the same venue back in 1989. His lecture is below in all 5 parts. My notes from his lecture were posted back in October.

42 thoughts on “Video: Dave Kellett “The Freeing of the Comics” lecture

  1. I saw Dave’s talk in Ohio and enjoyed it very much. Great to see it on video?and it appears to be in multiple aspect ratios too! Ooooo. Like Kubrick!

  2. I was also in Ohio and I too very much enjoyed Dave’s lecture . . . even if I do own a pair Watterson glasses. 🙂

  3. Dave , if newspapers survive and syndicates don’t then how will we get comics into the newspapers ( digital) without the help of the syndicates?

  4. Frank, part of that idea is that newspapers and comics, conjoined for the better part of the last century, are parting ways. Much as how classifieds have now been divorced from papers and delivered more effectively elsewhere (Craigslist).

    …Basically, that geography and exclusivity have no meaning online, in any way that would allow *syndication* to sell our strips into 500-1,000 papers. Strips will still appear in digital newspapers, I’m sure, but not at a paper-count that would make a syndicate model worthwhile. I think I talk about that in the second or third video clip.

  5. I was fortunate to have been at both talks — Watterson?s in 1989 and Kellett?s last year. Very different talks. Very different personalities. Very different reactions. (I?m pretty sure older cartoonists didn?t want to punch Dave in the throat when *he* was done.) But one common element was the obvious enthusiasm both have for cartooning, which made the talks insightful and very entertaining.

  6. Newspapers and comics are not “parting ways”. Last time I looked, almost all newspapers still carry them. And believe it or not, I still make a healthy living, much more than the numbers you deem a “success” by web standards. The difference is, now guys that are rejected by the syndicates can take their comics online.

    Success does not require engineering. Sometimes it just happens if the work is outstanding.

  7. I too enjoyed Dave’s presentation at OSU, though I disagree with his argument that “exclusivity [has] no meaning online.”

    Something that I think is increasingly overlooked by webcartoonists is the value of providing content to editors that is suitable for their publication–that will always carry meaning and value. I think of it more as a creative challenge, rather than shackles.

  8. Dave mentioned how no one would pay for delivery of one comic and that the reason people did pay was because they were bundled with everything else the newspaper had to offer.- I agree and that is how syndicates will survive and thrive. King Features is laying the groundwork with dailyINK. (bundle your comics together and the price seems worth it, especially once they stop posting on websites for free, which they will)

    Giving the comic away for free and making money off ads and merchandise doesn’t solve the problem at hand, which is getting paid for content. when the music industry saw that their product was being download for free, they didn’t accept it and say ‘that’s ok, we can just make money off concerts and t-shirts’. we shouldnt accept this either. we’d be belittling the art form if we did.

  9. Dave,
    Thanks for your great insights and for allowing those of us unable to attend your lecture in person to witness it here (also thanks to Alan for posting it). Your openness and giving nature always floors me, and I’m seeing a lot of this same attitude in the cartooning population in general in exchanging information and offering hard-worn experience to others in the community. We’re really at an amazing and unexplored time, a new frontier is ahead, it will be interesting to see where it takes us.

  10. Alan, thanks for posting Watterson’s speech text. I hadn’t read it before and it’s heart-wrenching. I could feel his anguish in the words. It’s like his family was dying and the doctors were too preoccupied with their stockbrokers to lend a hand. I haven’t had a chance yet but I look forward to hearing how Dave’s talk compares.

  11. Bill Watterson would have been able to make a living from Webcomics without having to merchandise (and an even better living than syndication) here are the figures:

    His first year in syndication with Calvin and Hobbes gained 256 newspapers, multiplyed by 52 weeks at $10 a week = $133120, and although the first book came out a year and half later it sold 552552 copies in the first year. @$12 a book and 4% his cut would work out at $265, 224, added to the syndication income is $398,344.

    Conversely Calvin and Hobbes would reach an audience of 256,000 in it’s first year on the web ( the first year on Gocomics it had 64500 suscribers and the actual number of readers who read daily but don’t suscribe is roughly 4x that figure, according to a few kind cartoonist on Gocomics who helped in my research.
    Tony Piraro states you should be able to achieve a figure of $2 of advertising income a year from each person = $512, 000

    Roughly 10% of those people would buy a book at a profit of $6 a book = $153,600

    This amounts to $665,600 which is nearly twice as much as the syndication route and there is no need for merchandise involved (Watterson by the way was quite happy for books to be a licensed product)

    Who knows what figure he would have reached during a ten year run on the web.

  12. Newspapers for some, webcomics for others.

    Who really cares anymore as long as you’re happy at whichever you choose? Seems to me that less of one side worrying about what the other is saying/doing would be a healthy and refreshing change of pace.

    My opinion of Dave’s speech is he seems to be answering a question no one asked. He clearly loves comics and the art form, but seems to have some sort of axe to grind, concerning his rank on the industry ladder.

    In my experience, these talks and desire to act as a self-appointed ambassador of a chosen industry are an attempt to fill some sort of hole in one’s self confidence.

    I think the only people who really need a talk like this to happen are Dave and his ego.

    All this being my merely opinion, of course.

    Carry on,


  13. @Corey
    If Dave’s speech so turned you off, why are you paying any attention to it at all? I’m sure you have a lot of better things to do than publicly disregard something you’re not interested in. Thank you for your opinion, but maybe there are others who ARE interested in what Dave Kellett has to say. Self-appointed? Here’s a mirror.

  14. @Mark,

    I’m very interested in what Dave has to say. How can I not be, when he speaks of the death of the very thing from which I collect a paycheck?

    I simply think he’s wrong and I question the motivation behind these speeches. He has never been in newspaper syndication, so I have hard time getting on board with his ideas.

    Which, again, is my opinion, on an open forum… for expressing opinions.

    @Dave Stephens,

    You are a tool.



  15. I would really like to hear a conversation about comics without anyone bringing up Watterson or “ol’ Sparky” as if every cartoonist is an old buddy and pal of the two. Give me a break. It’s getting weird.

    I am a huge fan of creator-owned independent work, and if that’s online, cool.
    It’s good work if you can pull it off.

    I am also a huge fan of working for solid professional giant publishers.
    It’s good work if you can get it.

    My beef is the broad statements. Kellet’s model works great for him, or for content within that narrow formula – and good for him. But, publishing is a big-big word.

  16. >>Gocomics it had 64500 suscribers and the actual number of readers who read daily but don?t suscribe is roughly 4x that figure, according to a few kind cartoonist on Gocomics who helped in my research.<<

    Subscriber numbers on GoComics mean very little. A couple of web only creators I know there make next to nothing. I'm sure it's an ego boost to see new readers being added, but I don't see how subscriber numbers or even having a lot of actual readers translates into the kind of revenue your "kind" cartoonist friends claim. Their advertising cut is so small, that it doesn't really matter.

  17. The comment near the end of the Q&A about editorial cartoons doing well in an advertiser-supported business model, assuming high traffic, seems counter-intuitive to me. Most advertisers would not want their product/service to be advertised next to a political cartoon that takes a one-sided view. That would upset half of their potential customers at any given time, given the equal polarization of voters in the US. I think the Ann Coulter/Ted Rall model is most viable: Make outrageous comments about the other side that get a lot of attention and draw people to your website, then sell them books. Missing Ted Rall’s input here about now…

  18. I was glad to have the opportunity to read Watterson’s speech as I had heard about it for years but hadn’t actually come across a transcript of it.

    Here’s a question – did he predict webcomics or did the current generation of independent comic creators (I prefer to think of them this way) all take this speech to heart and create a business model as a result?

    I realize this is a chicken and egg question but, as I read the speech, I recognized an awful lot of terms like “dead wood on the comics page” that have become standard in anti-syndication rants on comics forums.

  19. I must not get out much–I can’t remember the last time I heard someone actually bring up my main concern concerning publishers/syndicates: how we work for them — when they should be working for us. Thanks Dave!

    I…think I understand why comic strips ended up in the paper — being the first real form of cheap entertainment in it’s early days, right? Artists naturally wanted in on that slice. But now, the lit’s all but gone, leaving strips up beside Ford dealerships and barber coupons. It’s just an odd place to go for comics entertainment–especially if you’re younger than 30.

    If you want be a part of a collective, why not a collective of other comics strips? It just seems like Dudes still syndicated are the kinds of guys looking for their options, and those who are not are those who are making their options.

    Or does your newspaper work for you?

    You know who’s working for who not by the words used in a contract, but by he whom gets the bigger pay check at the end of the day (and by the least amount of work).

    I’ve often thought about that–which made me think about this; what do publishers even do anymore? No advertising? No distributing? They get my copyright? (talkin’ ’bout comic books now) I get a straight pay check for universal rights?–not even a percentage of sales for “starting artists”?

    Are publishers just loaning companies with “massive interest rates”?

    Yo syndicated dudes, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish, but the Internet had one of the best business models of all time. One of the best business models of all time!

  20. When he says parting ways, I’m thinking he means when papers go online they won’t be taking the strips onto their sites…. They really won’t need to, or have to.

  21. @ Marc Davidson

    I believe that the average amount you get paid off Gocomics is roughly $1 a month for every 2000 suscribers you have.

  22. Having to do everything the syndicate would do and produce a strip on top of that, just isn’t anywhere near my capacity or interest in the slightest and with my reluctance to even being on the internet at all… After watching this insightful and informative video I have a feeling my comic strip cartooning career will be brief in that context, if at all and it is all I was ever meant to do… Who knows…

  23. I’d like someone to put this in perspective of the reader/user/viewer. Publishing, electronic or paper-based, is most successful when it serves the public.

    So…what does the public want from cartoonists?

    I think that question is exclusive from what a lot of business people and creatives are discussing…

    Who needs us? When? Where? How often? Why?

  24. That’s an EXCELLENT question, Michael — one I didn’t address at all…since this was very much an “inside baseball” talk to cartoonists.

    To your point: I would venture that the self-selecting (and social-network-selecting) nature of digital technologies is much closer to what the average consumer wants.

    Akin to ordering at a sit-down restaurant: Would you rather have a choice of the sides you like, or be told that your dish ONLY comes with asparagus? Would a reader rather be forced to see Gasoline Alley, Love Is, Ziggy, and Apartment 3-G that they’ve seen and hated for 20 years…just to get the fresh Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy they *know* they love? Or would they rather go straight to those two?

    My guess is the second path is closer to most consumer’s choice. And that’s closer to the consumer experience that digital technologies deliver.

    That’s not even to speak of the immediacy of multiple platforms (web/RSS/mobile), depth of archives, and the expanded world around the strip in “about” pages, “cast” pages, “author” pages, and blogs…all of which enrich the experience for the reader that wants to dive deep.

    …but great, great question!

  25. A very good comic that’s sydicated will turn around the fortunes of syndication completely.We are talking a massive strip here.

  26. If there was only one big giant syndicate left it would make the newspapers pay 10 x more for features as the newspapers would a) not be able to go across the road and get cheaper ones and b) the syndicate would have a good stranglehold over the other features it provides such as columns and puzzles, thus lifting everything up for the cartoonists. All this syndicate consolidation that’s going on at the moment will a good thing.

  27. Syndicates deserve the 50% cut they get and cannot be compared to agents of other media who get 15% or 10%. A movie or sports agent has the talent already proven in some capacity and therefore easier to sell and still make a huge profit.For the undiscoveres talent of syndication it’s a harder sell and 50% adequately compensates this. Just look at the tv show Dragons Den to see a parrallel to this in which they go for 50% as much as possible and go much lower when the prospects come to them with an already proven model with bright prospects.

  28. John,

    Just how many syndicated strips are there now? What is the average number that a newspaper carries? What is the average compensation per year per strip?

    Once you have answered these questions you will discover a shrinking market for an ever-growing number of strips. You will also discover that syndicates are practically giving away strips in order to maintain a respectable level of industry percentage.

    In the end, you have to admit it would really suck to be in a 10 year contract with a syndicate that has only sold your strip to 9 newspapers.

    You do bring up some interesting points. Syndicates are still valuable because they market, sell, bill and have a legal department that can handle legal issues, should they arise. However, when the pie becomes so small that even half of it won’t feed your pet pigeon, then something has to give.

  29. Steve, this is unpopular to say but if a comic strip only sells to 9 newspapers it isn’t the fault of the syndicate, they will push every strip the same as much as they can as they are getting the same profit as well as the cartoonist after costs. Put simply in a nutshell the longer you spend on a creation before it hits the market, (deveoping it personally before sending it to a publisher syndicate)the richer you will become. Examples from many media, JK Rowling spent 5 and a half years writing Harry Potter before sending off to an agent, The Beatles (minus Ringo) also spent 5 and a half years practising together, writing and developing before contracting with their manager. Bill Watterson spent 5 years coming up with many ideas , developing his humor and style along the way before Calvin and Hobbes got sydicated. You see this patteren in all areas if media. BUT you must also have a sense of what’s working and what isn’t and be mature enough to write, re-write, adapt and grow through these years otherwise you could be flogging a dead horse.
    “He who knows and knows he knows, he is wise, follow him”

    When a person gets picked up by an agent/publisher/sydicate too early on their journey they may have success for a short period of time but come up against a brick wall soon and taper off into obscurity soon as they haven’t developed themselves personally enough. Hence the difficult second album/novel/ a movie flop/ one-hit wonder etc…

    Madonna has lasted for decades, no small feat , I’m sure due mostly getting famous at age 25 and not 16.

  30. “the longer you spend on a creation before it hits the market, (developing it personally before sending it to a publisher syndicate)the richer you will become.”

    John, Thank God! I have been doing comic strips since 1984 and in one week my current strip will reach its 3rd anniversary.(But more like four years when you consider the whole development) But it is still unsyndicated, and I am quite low on funds. Glad to hear I will soon become rich.

    If you want to see what a syndicate does not want to syndicate, look at my strip! Avoid doing anything like it!

  31. Well thats a funny strip steve.Forget all the above what I said lol. Do it as a webcomic, Aaron Johnson sells hundreds of plushies of what the duck, you could too.

  32. John, you don’t say what you do for a living or what your background with syndicates is, but, as someone who has been on the receiving end, let me tell you that, when a syndie sales person calls on a newspaper, they can’t, and don’t, push every strip in their portfolio. They push whatever is hot at the moment.

    I turned into the go-to guy for comics briefly at a small paper. It wasn’t my official job, but I was the acknowledged person who cared about these things. So, when we lost a strip for whatever reason, I’d get three sample packets and show them to the editors and let them make a choice, but those strips would be ones that addressed the demographic of the previous strip.

    But I couldn’t count on relevant suggestions from the reps at the syndicates. As sales people they think in terms of the brand-new strip that was pitched to them at the last meeting, and the hot strip that leads the pack. They don’t look at your existing selection and reach into their bag to offer a mid-level strip that would fill a hole, nor do they look at your hometown’s demographics or history to suggest a sleeper that would address your readership in a particular fashion.

    (They probably dig a little harder when dealing with a major metro, mind you. But most papers aren’t major metros and don’t merit the kind of deep thought and research you seem to have in mind. Sell them “Zits” or “Pearls” and get on to the next appointment.)

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